Online news: bloggers v newspapers – will the lowest cost base win?

Financial forecasts look negative for newspapers

Photo by Zarko Drincic from Flickr licensed under Creative CommonsThere are some nervous investors in the newspaper world.  Even after the recent 30% lift in the broader stockmarket, newspaper stocks like the New York Times Company and the Washington Post Company are trading on price to cashflow multiples of 4.2 and 6.8, where their 3 year averages were 11.8 and 10.6 respectively (Gannet actually trades at 1.8 x cashflow - albeit with a lot of debt).

Newspapers were seeing revenue decline year on year even before the credit crunch started. From the peak in 2005 of about $50 billion in newspaper ad revenue in the US,  revenue declined to $38bn in 2008.

Warren Buffett wouldn’t buy a newspaper these days for any price and newspapers themselves (those that are left after companies like Tribune have filed for bankruptcy and others have shut down) are even pleading for charitable status before those oh-so-friendly politicians.

The public already seems to be voting with their feet with the Pew Research Centre results showing that the percentage of Americans getting most of their national and international news from the web has gone from 15% in 2001  to about 40% today. Environmentally insensitive as my household is, it also seems tactless to  be throwing hunks of trees out with the rubbish every week in this age of global warming concensus.

It’s fascinating (particularly for bloggers … Ahem..) to watch. Sort of like a slow motion car crash.

And it is indeed slow motion; back in the mid 1990s I worked for a  very large business magazine publishing group who were very concerned about the commodification of news on the web. This (listed) group’s response to the threat posed by the web was to spend quite a bit of money trying to build web based vertical business communities around subscription products where ‘news’ was only a small part of the offering (they were trying to sell conferences, lists, and databases etc).

Can the traditional news industry restructure before it’s too late?

Does the news industry ‘get it’ (including television news for that matter), or are they in terminal decline? And if the traditional news industry is in terminal decline where are we going to be getting our news from – who is going to take up the slack? Bloggers? Google News? None of the above?
Looking at the online output from a lot of newspaper websites you could easily come to conclusion that on the surface they don’t get it.

The response of most papers to these strategic challenges, it seems to me, is to put in systems so they can multi-purpose copy to put out web versions and hardcopy versions at the same time. Like … errrmmm … wow ….

As an approach it’s likely to be fundamentally flawed because screen reading habits are simply different from hardcopy reading habits (so you can’t easily re-purpose for both). For example conventional advice onscreen is to write no more than 2 sentence paras, use online emphasis tools like colour etc where appropriate, and heavily use subheadings.

Another key point is that online the unit of consumption is not the newspaper ‘Section’ but rather the individual story itself, much as in the online music industry consumers increasingly buy singles through websites like iTunes rather than albums.  The individual article becomes the point where most people directly enter the parent website – so links from an article to your other articles and similar techniques to generate traffic within a website become far more important than in a hardcopy publication.

Most newspapers seem not to understand search engine optimisation

Another fundamental problem that is easily recognisable on your favourite newspaper’s website is an inability to respond fully to the needs of search engine optimisation. If you want to boost your online advertising revenue you  need to pull in punters who are actually actively looking for information via a search engine rather than hoping that they will serendipitously spot your ad at the right time. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that a buyer who is actively looking is worth paying more for as a marketeer.  As a publisher you also need to recognise that (typically) 75% of the traffic to your website will come from search engines.

Google ranks words that occur in titles as more important than words that occur in body text. Yet newspaper subeditors seem to think they are principally employed to produce clever puns (‘Shopping Maul’ or ‘Welcome to the House of Funds’ in a business publication I just read) and subeditors also seem to be singularly thoughtless when it comes to choosing commonly used keywords to please Google and Co. For example, have a look at the titles on the New York Times online. Even where newspapers will go as far as encoding the title in the URL (e.g. the title of this article on Drivelry.com if you look at the url) the keywords in the title are often highly unlikely to be searched for.

To put this another way, the average blogger who uses WordPress straight out of the box (the free pubic domain software that underpins this blog) is likely to have better search engine optimisation than most newspaper websites.

The average blogger is also likely to be heavily scrutinizing Google’s Analytics plug-in to track readership from the first day they start blogging, to see what sort of response they get from their audience. In many publishing groups in my experience that sort of data probably never even gets out of the IT Department down to the journalist…

Cost-cutting on a newspaper doesn’t get you to profitability though

Printing and distribution account for about half a newspaper’s costs. So couldn’t you just shut down the presses?

Probably not.

If say the New York Times managed to halve its quarterly operating expenses, by dropping production of the physical paper, its online advertising revenues would still only cover about a fifth of its operating expenses.

As an article late last year in the Financial Times, Lex Column (link to the original quoted on the Magforum blog) said:

“To break even as an ad-funded digital-only business, with a quarterly cost base of, say, $338m, the New York Times – already the No. 1 newspaper website in the US – would either need 4 times as many unique users or ad rates 4 times as high as today’s, or some combination of the two.”

So where are we going to be getting our news from in 5 years time?

Photo by AlanCleaver 2000 from Flickr licensed under Creative CommonsThis is an issue which has been exercising that compulsory oracle for news hounds, ‘On the Media’ (who now even have a specific theme tune for business models to save the news industry). In a recent interview  Brooke Gladstone interviewed ex journalist David Simon who harrumphed that:

 “The Internet is a marvelous tool, and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future. But thus far it does not deliver much first generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth.”

 

[I thought it important to validate his worst fears about bloggers by doing just that.]

He went on to say:

“The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium. You know, the next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician, all right?”

We are watching a fascinating drama play out: an irresistible force (the creation of increasing numbers of niche content sites written by bloggers and disseminated by aggregators and search engines) meeting an immovable object (the newspaper industry) and neither charitable status nor anything else is going to save the latter from being completely transformed.

Blogs versus newspapers: who will win the battle?

Let’s draw a veil over the likelihood of bloggers or mainstream journalists attending zoning hearings. Here is a 10 point list of why newspapers have their work cut out for them: 

  1. Hosting a blog costs nil (on say WordPress.com) or $20 a month in hosting fees if you want to host it under your own domain name
  2. Bloggers use free graphics libraries under Creative Commons intellectual property rules that can be used to create professional looking articles e.g. free photos from Flickr in this blogPhoto by Mike Licht from Flickr licensed under Creative Commons
  3. Bloggers gain the inherent linking benefits from other bloggers (after keywords, linking is  a primary determinant of website results rankings on Google)
  4. Bloggers live and die by search engine optimisation (and therefore are extremely conscious of it)
  5. Bloggers close the feedback loop on whether their articles work by closely reviewing tracking data
  6. Bloggers have interests and expertise in specific subject areas that no generic journalist can match (let’s face it, some journalists are often a pale reflection of their phone books anyway) 
  7. Bloggers create sites that are extremely niche (the internet’s ‘long tail’ applies just as much to news consumption as shopping) yet because of the search engines they can be found. What publication (for example) would target the dozen or so people who would be interested in this article?
  8. Bloggers are going to write for free in many cases, for the same non-monetary reasons a lot of poorly paid authors write for the publishing industry
  9. Bloggers who don’t write for free will test to destruction the emerging revenue models that for the average newspaper journalist are the province of upper management: Adsense, affiliate programs, emerging electronic platforms like the Kindle, micro donations, pay-to-post, subscription lists (the old ‘controlled circulation list from the hardcopy publishing world) etc
  10. Bloggers use increasingly powerful publishing platforms like WordPress that have developed whole software eco-systems around them (where the platform itself is free)

There are other points we could make e.g. whether individual bloggers are worth going after with a lawsuit, how well some of those bloggers write (or not) but you get the idea.  To put it perhaps unkindly it could be argued that it would be great if some local and national newspapers shut down and just got out of the way – there will be someone else around to do their job at a lower cost when they’re gone (probably out of work journalists).

But (it’s incontrovertible) …. screen reading sucks

Oh yeah. Fair point. We see this in websites that I consult on commercially- we track print requests from online articles and there are a hell of a lot of them. It may sound like biting the hand that feeds you but at almost 2000 words anyone who’s got this far in this article without printing it deserves a medal.

However the response to this objection is that screen-based reading is getting better every day and increasingly it’s not going to involve a stupid laptop computer that takes 5 minutes to boot, has a keyboard and other components you don’t need to read with, and whose battery dies after 2-3 hours.

When it comes to portable screen-readers the future is now. It’s pretty clear that screen reading devices that you can read with your feet up on the couch like the Kindle (reviewed last year at Drivelry.com)  are getting there with consumers, with estimates from Citigroup that Amazon sold 400,000 Kindle units in 2008.  The newest Kindle even has a text-to-speech function i.e. it will read a book to you aloud.

And again the economics of the cost of distributing a book electronically will eventually force readers to buy a Kindle or look-alike unless they want to pay double for the equivalent in paperback.

As of May 13th 2009, David Simon (mentioned in the On the Media interview above) would be doubly horrified to learn that Amazon (at a 30/70% revenue split in their favour - the same terms they generously offer major newspaper chains) now makes the Kindle platform available to all 41 million-odd bloggers out there as a sales channel. For the modest sum of $1.99 you can even have all the articles from this website (Drivelry.com) delivered automatically to your very own Kindle reader.  Disclosure: this is a plug, run, don’t walk etc etc].

Nobody expects the Kindle to be a significant source of revenue in the short term, but in the medium to long term this is the publishing equivalent of an earthquake.

This article filed under the following 'Interest' categories (click category for more) Kewl

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Article posted by @Drivelry on June 9, 2009

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